#Monday Musings: Kori Schake

"Monday Musings” are designed to get quick, insightful thoughts based around three questions from those interested in strategy, from the most experienced and lauded, to our newest thinkers/writers.

1. Who had the greatest impact on you intellectually (whether through writing, mentorship, etc.)?

That’s actually a hard question for me, because I’ve had the good fortune of a cavalcade of great mentors: Condi Rice, Catherine Kelleher, Colin Powell, John Shalikashvili, Barry McCaffrey, Susan Shirk, Herb York, Ivo Daalder, George Quester, Ric Shinseki, Frank Miller, David Gordon, John McCain. But Tom Schelling is the one who most shaped my thinking—his way of carefully and critically approaching problems is the standard I aspire to. It was flat out terrifying to defend my dissertation with him identifying the loose threads in my explanations of the Berlin crises of 1958 and 1961; and at the end of it, he actually thanked me for teaching him something about strategy (which was obviously untrue). So ferocious a mind housed in so gentle and generous a personality! 

2. What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?

We sometimes think too narrowly about where we can learn strategy. I love Lawrence Freedman’s definition of strategy as producing better outcomes than you otherwise would have had. It requires clarity of thinking about objectives, creativity to weave together all the available means, and suppleness of execution that adjusts as circumstances change. Baseball man Bill Veeck exemplifies that better than just about anyone. So I pick his memoir, The Hustler’s Handbook, because it’s packed with more fine strategic thinking than most plodding books about ends, ways, and means.

Veeck never had the money to buy teams so was a master of cost-efficiency, mostly owned losing teams yet created devoted followings, engendered innovations that affect the game even today, was loathed by the other owners who were always seeking to ruin him, was often outsmarted (he wouldn’t negotiate trades in person with Branch Rickey because he knew he’d be talked out of his best talent) but kept hustling to find ways to stay in the game—he sent a dwarf up to bat (miniscule strike zone) during a playoff when his team desperately needed a walk. As owner of the White Sox, he realized that female fans were more loyal to a losing team than were male fans, so he set about incentivizing women with free daycare by registered nurses in the ball park—and when neighborhood ladies banded together to bring all their kids in on a single ticket, rather than prevent it, Veeck congratulated them for playing his system so well (and achieved his objective of great branding with women). He didn’t let propriety obstruct his analysis, insisting “Grover Cleveland Alexander drunk was a better pitcher than Grover Cleveland Alexander sober.” He was noble, too. He left off running the White Sox to join the Marine Corps during World War II (he lost a leg at Guadalcanal), tried to cross the color line even before Branch Rickey, was the only owner who supported Curt Flood’s challenge to free agency, and preferred the cheap seats in any ballpark. And he knew when the grinding arithmetic of attrition meant he should fold, selling the St Louis Browns when the deep pockets of Augustus Busch took up the Cardinals. Is that not a fine record for a strategist?

3. What do you want your legacy to be?

It feels unduly grand to answer a legacy question; but I fundamentally think about myself as a teacher—what I look like to myself is Winslow Homer’s prairie school teacher, standing at a blackboard, talking about geometry with farm kids. I’d like to be as good a teacher as the military officers of the Joint Staff were when I showed up to be the NATO desk officer in the autumn of 1990. I didn’t realize until then that mostly what the American military are is great teachers, because you can’t be good at your job in our military without making everyone around you good at their jobs—and I was the person everyone had to make good at her job. I was straight out of grad school, had none of the experience that trained their judgment, and everybody pitched in and taught me. They also modeled such inspiring leadership and encouraged me to think about myself in those same terms. It was a wonderful and fun experience for me; I hope to be that kind of teacher.

Kori Schake is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. She has worked in the Departments of Defense and State, on the NSC staff, and was senior policy advisor on the 2008 McCain presidential campaign. She is the editor, with Jim Mattis, of Warriors and Citizens: American Views on Our Military.

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